Students new to English to compete in Maine Writes poetry slam

LEWISTON — ZamZam Mohamed bobbed her head and moved her body, almost dancing, to the beat of her words.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Dembo Orthens, left, ZamZam Mohamed and Zahara Abdi will tell stories from their homeland of Somalia during the first Maine Writes poetry slam this week.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Aden Aden, 13, recites his poem "Home" at Lewiston Middle School on Friday. Aden, Dembo Orthens, back left, ZamZam Mohamed, Zahara Abdi, Hamza Ali and Isse Tawane will perform during the first Maine Writes poetry slam. To see a video of Dembo reciting her poem "Kalemie," go to 


By Aden Aden

This story is true

it didn't happen to you

I want to share

I hope you care

here it goes . . .

I was a little boy

In Africa


me and my mother

my cousins and my brother

sitting outside

at my house

in the garden

where we planted trees

squishy red tomatoes

it's almost night

everything's alright

laughing and talking

my sister cooking for us

fresh and delicious


gun shots in the air


I was feeling so scared

“Ca'a, Ca'a!!”

yelled my mom

Get up, get up!!

I was horrified


everyone yelling

Mom put me under the bed

all by myself

will they take me first?

I thought they would kill me

and what did I see?

through a hole in the wall

I saw my uncle fall

a man walking with a gun

he was having fun

yelling "mashallah!!


he shot my uncle dead

a bullet to his head

there was blood all around

spilling on the ground

the man who shot him

his head was covered

and I never saw his face

my cousin

a kid

came running outside

saw his dad had died

with her hand

my mom closed his eyes

she told us we have to go

where to?

I didn’t know

I left my home that day

we all ran away

this is how I became a refugee

they took my home away from me

I hope Africa is okay

I will go home again someday


By Isse Tawane


at camp refugee

my big brother Ali

walking with me

caring for dad's goats

fluffy white coats

on a bright day

other kids said hey

talking to them a lot

until the sun got hot

when we turned around

our goats were not to be found

they were gone


I felt so scared

my dad will be angry

angry with me

Ali climbed a big tree

what did he see?

long green trees

with big flat leaves

a dry sand

hot bright land

the goats ran away

we looked all day

and sweaty

we were so tired


we went back home

we said

dad we lost the goats

we're so sorry

my dad said come

look what is here

he showed me the goats

inside their fence

snuggled together

like they were cold

in the hot sun

still fluffy and white

they were alright

dad yelled at us

but he didn't do nothing

right now I remember

that day we lost the goats

"My Dad"

By Zahara Abdi

I was walking home

a calm sunny day

birds singing

leaves blowing away

through my refugee camp


at my house

many women

hugging and crying

I ask my sister in fear

"what's going on here?"

I didn't believe what she said

"our dad is dead"

I threw up my hands

and cried in anger

"NO! you lie"

"my dad did not die!"

but then

I saw my crying mother

and I knew it was true

He had been sick

for a year

far from here

on that Monday

he passed away

he left us

his three wives

ten daughters

and six sons

My father


funny and kind

always and forever

on my mind

I will always love

and miss him

"allah haa u naxaristo"

may he rest in peace


By ZamZam Mohamed

early one morning

before the sun comes up

the rooster crows

and everyone knows

get out of bed

and get to work


My beautiful home land

where I feel the wet sand

under my bare feet

as I walk down the street




I am alone

carrying the jugs

going to get water

at the village pump

I'm the first one there

but they don't care

girls fight

who got there first

we're all dying of thirst

my family gets five gallons

better not lose my balance

as I walk home

again alone

only little girls have this job

I think it is cool

boys go to school

friends big and small

playing soccer with a ball

made from old rags

tied up with plastic bags

women working

talking and laughing

building a house

with sticks and mud

singing Somali songs

all day long

pour the water in the pot

my mom said

you did a great job

proud of myself


By Dembo Orthens


where I was born

we left when I was four

because of the war

I saw people dying

my mom was crying

she was so afraid

we couldn't leave our home

many kids are small

they can't carry us all

soldier comes in my house

his face covered in black

walking all around

feet stomping the ground

tall gun

across his chest

I was hiding

under the couch

with my baby sisters

It was too dark

I felt so scared

I hugged them tight

will it be alright?

when the soldier went away

we knew we couldn't stay

we fled to Dodoma,

in Tanzania

a camp for refugees

for people like me

now people walk free

among many trees

I didn't understand

this different land

we went to the lake

I feel the fresh air

blowing through my hair

we were walking

my sister and I talking

feeling so happy

we looked up in the sky

light rain makes it less dry

my little sister started to cry

rainy muddy ground

that dripping sound

smells like home

we will go back

that's a fact

Now I'm 14 years old

I'm dreaming of Congo

the war there is done

but my life has just begun

"Africa Djibouti"

By Hamza Ali

I thought

in America

no problems

no wars

more money

like I saw on TV

movies in New York City

we want it easy

then the day came

to the airport we go

little did I know...

Mom told me


say good-bye to

your brothers

your sisters

your Abba.

they are not going with us"

I didn't know what to feel

this can't be real

I just cried

hoping she had lied

but my dad did not cry

brown army uniform

white gloves

red hat

on each shoulder

three shiny gold stars




eyes crinkled

looking down

he said

"don’t worry, you will be fine"

but I worry this is the last time

that day

far away

we left my dad

and five small children behind

but they are always on my mind

Early one morning

before the sun comes up

the rooster crows

and everyone knows

get out of bed

and get to work.

She memorized the poem, a piece she wrote about getting water from the village pump in Somalia, and she'd practiced performing in front of her Lewiston Middle School classmates countless times. She's normally quiet and shy, but her voice was strong, rhythmic now. So were her words.

When she finished, describing her pride at pouring water in a pot for her mother, her body stilled. She exhaled, giggled with relief, and her classmates burst into applause.

On Tuesday, ZamZam and five of her classmates will represent Lewiston Middle School at the first Maine Writes poetry slam. More than a dozen Lewiston students overall will compete against New York students via teleconference. They will be judged on writing quality and performance.

But something makes ZamZam and her middle school team unique: They're just learning English. When they started nearly four months ago, many weren't entirely sure what poetry was.

"I thought we were going to sing," ZamZam said.

The program, coordinated by L/A Arts, placed teaching artists in Lewiston Middle, Farwell Elementary and Montello Elementary schools for 15 weeks. The artists worked with fifth-grade classes in Farwell and Montello, and with a class of seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school. Students learned about poetry, then tried writing some of their own.

"It was transformative," said Joshua Vink, director of L/A Arts' Arts in Education program and one of the teaching artists. He'd been involved in a student poetry slam in New York and thought Lewiston's students could benefit as well.

"It's definitely something where it takes time for the kids to really feel ownership over the work and that (sense of), 'Wow, I actually can not only really play with language the way that I choose and creatively, but I can choose what I want to write about,'" he said.

For Lewiston Middle School students from Somalia, playing with language wasn't even a possibility at first. They had to learn what poetry was.

Then they had to get comfortable writing it.

"It was difficult to find rhyming words for the words you want," Ahmed Mohamed said.

Many Lewiston students focused on emotional topics. One fifth-grader penned a poem about bullying. Another wrote about homelessness.

The middle school 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds tended to write about their lives before coming to America. Zahara Abdi wrote about her father's death. Hamza Ali wrote about leaving his brothers and sisters behind in Africa.

They weren't easy experiences to express.

"We were so scared to share," said Isse Tawane, who wrote about losing his father's goats in a refugee camp.

When their poems were finished, the middle school class chose six students to participate in the poetry slam. They would have to memorize their poems and perform for the competition.

Some of those six are natural performers. Others, not so much.

"I'm about to have a heart attack," Hamza announced before practicing his poem in front of the class Friday.

The middle school and Montello students will compete against students from the Bronx on Tuesday and Farwell students will compete against Bronx students Thursday. They will use teleconferencing equipment at Lewiston Regional Technical Center so the two sides will be able to see and hear each other.

The individual poets will be judged by three adults and two students. The team with the highest scoring poets wins. 

The middle-schoolers aren't sure whether they'll win or not.

"We're going to try our best," Zahara said.

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Good work

I was really touched by these poems. They were very well done. Good work kids.

JOHN PAINTER's picture

Aden Aden's piece is tough to

Aden Aden's piece is tough to read, really tough, but couldn't help thinking, and while I'm not sure if there's a Somali hip hop scene, I get an almost Ivorian hip hop type feel from it - trying to pull something up and out of the violence, maybe himself, maybe the rest of us. I hope he keeps at his writing. All the pieces are showing mastery of English, and growing skill in the high art of poetry, and the temperance and tolerance - and, sometimes just reflection. This was really well done and more about what makes L/A great than many other other things.


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